Rape and the fog of war

Photo: United Nations Photo via Creative Commons

Photo: United Nations Photo via Creative Commons

Amid the reports of horrors currently taking place in Syria, there have been reports of rape being used as a weapon of war.

The Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault in Syria since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011.

A project of the Women’s Media Center the organisation was founded in 2012 by Wolfe and Gloria Steinem and has an important role to play in shining a light on the use of rape as a tool of war.

The need for independent verification takes on increasing importance if we look at the uprising in Libya when there were allegations of mass rape. Reports that this was being carried out on the orders of Muammar Gaddafi who was supplying troops with Viagra emerged last year were and were subsequently questioned by journalists and human rights organisations including Amnesty International.

This led some journalists conclude that the allegations of rape were all part of the propaganda war. While it may be true that the allegations were exploited to stoke up support for NATO intervention, it’s unfortunate that some journalists have gone on to conclude that all allegations about rape in Libya are suspect.
This argument is based largely on the fact that the journalist had not been able to speak to any women who claimed to have been raped.

The problem with this line of thinking is that journalists, particularly male ones, are not likely to hear from women who are raped.

Speaking in Brussels last year, Dr Salwa Fawzia El-Deghali, a member of the National Transitional Council, said it would be “almost impossible” to determine the number of women who were raped in Libya, because of the weight of family and cultural pressure that existed.

After Iman al-Obeidi made allegations that had been raped by Gaddafi’s forces, women in Benghazi marched in protest at the way she was treated and told reporters that her claims were “just a glimpse of what they have been facing for decades”.

But in contrast TV presenter Hala Misrati denounced al-Obeidi as a “whore” adding that a decent family would not spread news about their daughter’s rape. “With time they may even kill the girl herself,” she concluded.

Given the social and cultural pressures women in Libya can face if they admit to being raped, it’s surely too much of a leap to say that it didn’t take place because they are not talking about it.

Often reliant on secondhand information from doctors who claim to have met and treated patients but do not have patients’ permission to reveal their identities, journalists and aid organisations alike have struggled to document whether widespread and systematic rape took place in Libya.
Journalists of course need to be alert to the fact that stories about rape are often part of the fog of war.

But that doesn’t mean closing down to any suggestion that rape took place – according to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women,  assault of women occurs “often” during wars and armed conflict. What’s needed is a commitment to ensuring that no “side” in a conflict is able to make use of rape for their own ends.